“Raining in the Mountain”
A Power Struggle
|Set in a remote Buddhist monastery in 16th Century China, “Raining in the Mountain” is about a power struggle that ensues when Tripitaki, the Abbot of the Three Treasures Temple announces his retirement. He invites three outsiders to advise him on the critical choice of appointing his successor: Esquire Wen, a wealthy patron of the monastery, General Wang, commander-in-chief of the local military, and Wu Wai, a respected lay Buddhist master. Within the monastery, there are several disciples who aspire to the position of Abbot and they begin to collude individually with Esquire Wen and General Wang. However, t these two invited advisers have come with seditious intent, scheming to obtain the priceless scroll housed in the monastery: to get the scriptural text of “The Mahayana Sutra, ” hand-copied by Tripitaka. Meanwhile, convicted criminal Chiu Ming has arrived at the monastery to atone as a monk. He is assigned to guard the scroll at the house of scriptures, and encounters thieving rivals White Fox who poses as Esquire Wen’s concubine and General Wang’s fearsome Lieutenant Chang, who originally framed Chiu Ming for the crime he did not commit.
The scroll is stored at the Three Treasures Temple, whose abbot is retiring, and has asked Esquire Wen (Suen Yuet) to help him choose a successor. Coveting the scroll, Wen has two plans – firstly, the abbot’s second disciple Hui Wan (Lu Chan) has agreed to give it to him if chosen, but the woman he introduces as his concubine is actually White Fox (Hsu Feng), a master thief. Wen isn’t the only friend advising the abbot, though – General Wang Chi (Feng Tien) seems to have a similar deal with first disciple Hui Tung (Shih Jun), and his aide Chang Chen is a former policeman who once arrested White Fox. Then there’s lay expert Wu Wai (Wu Chia-hsiang), who travels with an entourage of beautiful women, and convict Chiu Ming (Tung Lam), who has paid a special fine to enter the monastery and become a monk at just this time.
The opening of King Hu’s film tracks a party of three on a journey through a range of natural landscapes and weathers. Their determined progression makes them look like pilgrims – an impression which appears to be confirmed by their destination of the ‘Three Treasures’ temple in Ming Dynasty China (the Bulguksa temple complex in South Korea was used as the film’s shooting location).
Even after they have reached the outer gates, their journey is far from over, as they are slowly escorted by the monk Hui Ssu (Paul Chin Pei) through the vast precinct and introduced into the otherworldly serenity of the monastery’s environs. This prologue is a kind of initiation.
To enter this holy place is also to corrupt it, and “Raining in the Mountain” is about this interpenetration and the transcendental, in a transient world where everything is always in motion. The ‘three treasures’ on which the temple was founded and for which it was named – “the Buddha, the Dharma and the Samgha [the monastic community]” are decidedly of a spiritual rather worldly kind, but locked away in the temple’s Scripture Hall is a fourth treasure: the transcription of the Mahayana Sutra said to have been handwritten by the famous Tang Dynasty monk Xuanzang (Tripitaka) himself.
The shifting value of the scroll is one of the film’s central themes. The district’s governor General Wang (Tien Feng) also considers it “a priceless treasure”, and also hopes to steal it via the underhanded operation of his lieutenant, the law officer (and ex-con) Chang Cheng (Chen Hui-lou). Yet even though White Fox scorns the monastery’s simple food, and deems the temple a “dump”, she considers the sutra nothing more than a “ragged old scroll”.
This perspective which brings her into an unexpected alignment with the monastery’s wise old Abbot (Kim Chang-Gean) and with the Abbot’s equally wise lay advisor Master Wu Wai (Wu Chia-hsiang), who comments, “The old scroll has no real value.”
the Abbot has invited representatives of worldly wealth and power, to assist him in choosing a successor. Asked by Wu Wai if he has any criteria, the Abbot responds: “I have none. It doesn’t matter whether he is a monk or a layman, so long as he is enlightened.” That last proviso, of course, is harder to fulfil than it sounds.
“Raining in the Mountain” is more about content than form and places “true value” in a text’s meaning rather than in its materiality.